Such are the difficulties faced by young people in China jobs can be very hard to find and there has been a trend for them to seek employment within funeral homes. This strange happening was spotted by director Carol Salter and is the subject matter of her debut feature Almost Heaven.
It is at one of these homes that we meet Ying Ling, a 17 year old girl who is training to be a mortician. It is a difficult job that aside from requiring contact with the death also demands 24 hour shifts with little daylight. She is accompanied by Jin Hau who gives her training and friendship during her time at the morgue.
Ying Ling is very much the star of the documentary. She is naturalistic, funny, and never looks as if she is on camera. She is almost never out of shot and before long you feel as if you are looking at the world through her perspective.
The friendship between her and Jin Hau stands very much at the centre of the film. As light hearted as their relationship may at times seem it serves an important purpose of allowing them get through each challenging day. In each other they find relief from the sombre and all-consuming environment they inhabit.
Despite being a relatively simple story Almost Heaven manages to cover a number of topics and themes. The funeral home becomes a place that does not just represent death but also family, friendship, and the economic problems facing young people in China. It is a real indictment of China and its stunted progress. Only a few years ago they were being touted as the future of the global economy but here we see people trying to come to terms with how limited their options are.
It is a brave move from Carol Salter to keep the film so bare and stripped back. There is almost no music and each shot is simple and handheld. There is a great confidence in the footage she has and the characters at the story’s centre. The camera work is very unobtrusive and there are times when you feel it is having no impact on those around it.
As admirable as these choices are there is something missing at the centre of the film. The footage does not have enough surprises or any truly extraordinary moments to lift the story. Similarly, lots of interesting topics are covered but there aren’t any properly insightful or profound comments on any of them. The characters and environment depicted are curious and at first interesting but there is nothing more to hold your attention. It may only be 75 minutes long but it probably would have been difficult to watch if it was any longer.
Almost Heaven has plenty of interesting and intriguing elements but there is never a point when they come together to create anything particularly memorable or emotionally engaging. It is easy to admire Carol Salter’s debut but it can also be hard to enjoy.